Should our principles always guide our actions?

Hatier cartoon

Cécile Hatier from the University of Wolverhampton gives us an overview of her latest article, which discusses when it’s appropriate to resign from office…

Politicians are constantly vilified for their lack of moral principles, and rightly so, given the outrageous actions of some! We get frustrated because they turn back on their promises the minute they get into office, and are driven by political expediency, if not selfish considerations, instead of the public interest. I won’t even start listing examples, the press rages about two or three cases a day in the UK. It is no surprise then that when the deed committed is particularly bad, we demand their resignation. I say “we”: really,I mean the opposition parties, who are always after a way of undermining their opponents, but also lobbies, commentators in the media, public opinion through opinion polls… and even me as an individual too, sometimes. Resigning is seen as a way of paying for their “faults”, teaching a lesson to other politicians who might be tempted to act in a similar fashion in the future. Obtaining a resignation also shows that we, the people, ultimately remain in control of our representatives through public pressure. Ideally, we would even want the politician herself to make the decision to resign. That is what my article in Policy and Politics is about: when a representative has come to the realisation that the principles she defends are going to be undermined, or breached, should she systematically step down?

On the face of it, it seems like the morally courageous thing to do. My article argues, however, that things are a lot more complicated. One problem is: are her principles sound to start with, and is politics really simply about the translation of principles into practice, without regard to the consequences? As I was watching the coverage of the Paris attacks on the 7th, 8th and 9th January 2015, I thought again about the wisdom of the saying “act on principle”. Amédy Coulibaly, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi had acted purely on principle, after all, and killed 17 people and injured others in the process. Many other fanatics before them committed similar atrocities in the name of grand ideas, which somehow could not be questioned. That is what being a fanatic is: when you stop doubting the veracity of your principles; not even a single iota of them. In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire defined fanaticism as “a malady of the mind, which is taken in the same way as smallpox.” To him, it is a “delirium”, when we have lost our sense of reality even though we claim to be driven by good reasons. Voltaire’s target was religious fanaticism, but 20th century totalitarianisms have taught us that religions do not have the monopoly of murderous zealotry.

Doesn’t this prove that excessive reliance on principles is perilous? Should we thus be relieved that our political representatives are not as principled as those who clearly wish the destruction of our liberal and democratic values? That beyond the imposing (though largely symbolic) mobilization to defend those very values, statesmen and women have already gone back to their daily business of compromising, mitigating, getting their priorities wrong, and helping themselves a little in the process? Should we really be asking them to resign when they fail us, and fail themselves? Could other people do a better job? Could we do a better job? How can we remain principled without falling into fanaticism?

The answer is not straightforward, and that’s the good news. The good news is that contrary to what fanatics believe, things are never Manichean. It’s never black and white. I tried to show in my article that the politician’s main job is to exercise her political judgement before considering resignation as an option. Political judgement presumes complex reasoning: it isn’t pure rational thinking, as it incorporates emotions as a cognitive element of our reasoning. This is where I disagree with Voltaire. His remedy to fanaticism is the “spirit of philosophy”, which, he claims, “renders the soul tranquil”. To me, that is far too optimistic, and possibly naïve. The exercise of philosophical thinking, especially in the political domain, does not offer tranquillity or serenity. All it offers is constant frustration, some successes and many step backs, for those who exercise a political role as well as those would endure the consequences of political acts. Resignations are not going to change much of this, but what can be done, at it is a good deal already, is work on avoiding the perversion of principles.

If you enjoyed this blog post you may also enjoy Blair: “I’m not to blame for Chilcot delays” from the Policy Press blog

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